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A Jury for America
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
News of the verdict rocketed around the world: three white men convicted of murdering a young Black man, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, as he jogged through the small coastal town of Brunswick, Georgia.
Many news outlets framed their reporting through the lens of history - the deep stains of injustice that have defined much of the American story on account of race, crime, and punishment. That this judgement came out of a courtroom in the Deep South, and that it was decided by a jury composed almost exclusively of white people, was a newsworthy lede that made the story one of global interest.
This was, and is, progress. I have covered enough cases, stretching back to the 1950s, to have seen the playbook of white juries acquitting white men of killing Black people play out many times. Many of these cases had evidence that should have been open and shut for conviction, but for the race of those who committed the crime, the race of the victims, and the race of those passing judgement.
To all this tortured history, we now have a counternarrative. It says that, even in a small town in the South, the racial realities aren’t what they once were. We can rightfully celebrate this shift. But we also must recognize that the complete story around the Arbery case paints a murkier picture.
The conviction in Georgia almost didn’t happen. The trial almost didn’t happen. The arrests almost didn’t happen. The murderers walked free for 74 days after the killing. It took weeks of pressure and the recusal of not one but two prosecutors. It took the dogged determination of Larry Hobbs, a reporter for the small local paper, The Brunswick News, who wouldn’t give up on a story he felt was suspicious. It took the courage of Arbery’s family who, as often happens in cases like this, had to mix grief with advocacy. And it likely took a cellphone video, recorded and released by one of the murderers, which showed the events of that fateful day with a clarity that couldn’t be ignored. But for all of this, we might not have gotten to the point of a trial, let alone the convictions.
In the days since the judgement came down, I have been trying to think of the broader contexts that the case illuminates. I see progress, to be sure. But I also recognize the precarious path that progress often takes. When it comes to race, America is not the country of my youth. Not by a longshot, thank God. We are not the country of my young adulthood, or even my middle age. There were times, in courtrooms of the past, when Arbery’s killers would have walked free. But there might still be courtrooms and circumstances today where that would be the case, especially if the evidence hadn’t been so overwhelming.
In covering the Civil Rights movement, I saw that the lines of hatred around race were clearly defined and absolute. There was no nuance or account for the individual. Systemic racism, defined by law, declared ALL Blacks had to ride in the back of the bus, drink from a different water fountain, and attend a different school. To be sure, there are Americans who still feel this should be the case today. But I think, thankfully, that level of racism has been greatly reduced.
The defense in the Arbery case played the not-so-subtle arguments that have gotten White defendants off in the past, variations around fear of Black men, and it didn’t work.
What I see in the Arbery case is that when presented with overwhelming evidence of injustice, most Americans will come down on the side of justice no matter the issue of race. But the issue of race clouds what evidence of injustice Americans end up seeing. Another way of saying this is that if given a chance, America can do the right thing on race. But we prevent this ultimate progress because we don’t grapple honestly enough with issues of race in America.
This is a difficult challenge. It stretches from what we teach in our classrooms, to the nature of how we vote, to how we define our communities. It can be found in zoning laws, in criminal justice reform, and in police procedures. There are many who see the Arbery verdicts as justice who still don’t see the more subtle and entrenched forms of injustice that pervade so much of American society.
In a courtroom, jury members will always bring their biases. That is part of being human. But no matter their differences of backgrounds, they all end up hearing the same version of events, the same set of facts. That is how a trial works. And then each juror must make up their mind on the basis of what they have heard.
We know that all the jurors in the Arbery case, no matter their backgrounds, heard the same evidence and came to the same conclusions. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. I don’t know what each of them thinks of the notion of “critical race theory.” I don’t know if they voted for Barack Obama or Donald Trump. I don’t know if they think voting laws are too strict or too permissive. I don’t know if they want their children to read Toni Morrison. I don’t know what they think about all the cultural and political storms that are pulling our country apart. I just know that they looked into the eyes of three white men and said they did not have any right to murder Ahmaud Arbery.
Then I wondered, what if Americans had more shared experiences around weighing evidence? What if we weren’t so sorted into our own bubbles? What if there were less lies and manipulation on social media? What if Fox News didn’t pump out propaganda? What if we knew more about our collective history, its failures as well as its successes? And what if this wasn’t only around race, but around the pandemic, or climate change, or other issues that have been politicized and distorted? This isn’t simply about providing more “facts.” There is a lot of evidence that that approach doesn’t work. This is about providing forums for people to weigh a breadth of evidence, not only that which comes sorted by an algorithm or an echo chamber.
The jury room is one of the few places in America where people of different backgrounds who might never cross paths otherwise, who might live in completely separate worlds, have to talk to each other and hear what others have to say. It is a place where the stakes can be very high, even matters of life and death. It is a place where everyone has heard the same things and brings their head and heart into the discussion. It is a place where you have no choice but to engage and to vote, to listen and to speak. It is a place for deliberation and not just scrolling through heavily-curated news feeds and pressing buttons with a Pavlovian response.
We have seen that in this America, justice can occur. Perhaps if we see why that is the case, we can find a way for justice to spread more widely into the rest of our world.